You all know the story of Hansel and Gretel, don’t you? But you can read it here, if you like. Because in fact, on rereading it, I found there were elements I hadn’t remembered. That their mother was a stepmother, and that she was the moving force behind the abandoning of the children. That both parents had taken the children into the woods, not just the father. That each time, Hansel had pretended he was looking back to see something on the roof of the house – his little white cat, his dove – to hide his dropping of the trail of white stones or crumbs. That the parents had tied a bough to a tree to make a tapping noise like the tapping of an axe on a trunk and convince the children that they were still nearby when in fact they had crept home and left them alone in the forest. That after Gretel had killed the witch, a white duck carried them safely over ‘a great stretch of water’. That the stepmother had died while the children were in the forest. That the story ends thus:
Then all their cares were at an end and they lived in sheer joy together. My story’s done. See a mouse run. And whoever catches it can make a great big furry hood from it. (Joyce Crick’s translation from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the Selected Tales.)
Joyce Crick’s note to the story explains that this ending was added in the fifth edition (1843) of the tales, when Wilhelm Grimm revised ‘Hansel and Gretel’ to reflect a version written by August Stöber (in Elsässisches Volksbüchlein). Crick writes:
In phrase after phrase the story now offers more purchase for moral judgement than the laconic discretion of the version in the first edition did. The stepmother is made harsher, the father more plagued by conscience, Gretel more weepy, Hansel more confident.
The famine which drives the family to the brink of starvation, the explanations and motivations for the characters’ behaviour, the white duck, these were all elaborations on the original story. There is a comparison of the first and fifth editions here, so you can judge the extent of the changes for yourself.
The stepmother was, until the fourth edition (1840), the mother. Marina Warner argued, as far as I recall since I don’t have a copy of From the Beast to the Blonde here, that the Grimms systematically turned the ‘bad mothers’ of their tales into stepmothers: this reflects a social fact – stepmothers often were harsher to their stepchildren and, in a world where food and other resources might be scarce and survival a struggle, often did favour their own children – and an emotional one – mothers must be nurturing and kind, they may not hate or kill their offspring, it’s an idea we simply do not like to entertain, even now.
In the woods lurks another maternal figure: the witch. If the stepmother is the Bad Mother, the witch is the Very Bad Mother Indeed. The delicious gingerbread house, the supper of ‘milk and pancakes with sugar, and apples and nuts’ and the ‘two lovely little beds with white sheets’ appear to be the attributes of a kind and loving parent, but alas, by the next day the old woman has locked Hansel in a cage to fatten him up and forced Gretel to be her skivvy.
The tale very clearly links hunger for physical food with hunger for maternal love. When Hansel and Gretel devour the gingerbread house, they’re not simply being gluttonous but desperately attempting to satisfy their craving for their mother. As Bruno Bettelheim points out in connexion with this story (in The Uses of Enchantment), the gingerbread house is in one sense the mother’s body, which literally feeds the infant. But the inhabitant of the house plans to feed upon the children. In this respect she is like the fairies I am reading about in Diane Purkiss’ Troublesome Things, fairies descended from Sumerian child-eating demons and lamia, who drain babies of life even as they appear to suckle them. In my family, adults – including me – often talk about ‘eating’ children: ‘I could gobble you up!’ But we’re not Sumerian child-eating demons: it’s a way of expressing our love. And this seems not freakishness on our part, but something quite common; well, between mothers and babies at least. And Maurice Sendak described his aunts and uncles as saying they would ‘eat him up’ when they visited him (they inspired the wild things in Where the Wild Things Are). And in your family?
Certain motifs in the story are connected by their colour, white: Hansel’s little cat and dove, who may be sitting on the roof; the shining white pebbles and the moon by whose light Hansel gathers them; the duck who carries the children safely over the water. These are the children’s helpers. But in the deceitful world of the gingerbread house, the milk and the white sheets on the little beds are part of the illusion of aid.
Despite its cheery themes of attempted infanticide and cannibalism, if any of the Grimms’ tales can be said to be for children, it is ‘Hansel and Gretel’. The children triumph through their own resourcefulness, they begin as powerless and abused but end the tale in control of their destinies and bringing home wealth to sustain the family. And they push their ‘mother’ into the oven! What could be more enjoyable for a child than vicariously doing that?
(Albert Weisgerber, illustration from Kinder- und Hausmärchen nach Sammlung der Brüder Grimm, retold by Hans Fraungruber; Wien & Leipzig: Martin Gerlach & Co., ca. 1900, from here; you can see the whole book here)
Illustration in text: Paul Meyerheim, illustration from Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1893; from here)